The Amnesiac Customer and the Importance of Emotions


Share on LinkedIn

Do your customers remember their recent experiences with your firm? Sometimes . . . but not necessarily accurately.

Does it matter? Immensely.

What makes an experience memorable? It’s complicated.

These are not philosophical issues. In the rush to capture customer feedback at the point of interaction and manage every aspect of every customer touch it is easy to lose sight that not every experience matters that much and some experiences matter more than others.

Do Your Customers Remember Their Recent Experiences?

The truth is that people forget (or, more accurately, can’t recall) much more than they remember. While we may not be amnesiacs (remember the movie Memento, where the protagonist has zero recollection of any new experiences?), the overwhelming majority of experiences we have are fleeting and don’t endure much beyond the moment in which they occur. People often remember fragments or glimpses of past experiences, often without the details.

We know that customer recall is poor: that’s why there is a push to ask for feedback immediately after an interaction. While the ability to remember specifics tends to atrophy over time, whether it’s an hour, a day or 10 days later, customers often display nominal recall. Equally important, people often misremember: we make mistakes, make assumptions and infer parts of the picture to fill in the gaps. Our memories often prove quite unreliable.

Does It Matter?

What customers remember and what they forget is of critical practical importance to every company. In theory, every customer touch is important. In reality, some touches are more important than others, while some might barely matter. Those experiences that affect the larger customer relationship are key.

The ongoing customer relationship is affected only by those experiences that the customer remembers. Passing interactions that customers promptly forget essentially become irrelevant, as such transient moments leave no lasting impact and do not affect future behavior. The experiences customer forget are the trees falling in the woods when no one is around: the experiences happen and there is sound, but it doesn’t really matter. Our research suggests that two-thirds or more of our interactions with companies do not stick with us.

But those experiences that we remember – the ones that stick to the ribs – become inputs into our ongoing behavior. Every experience that customers remember can reinforce or undermine the brand promise and the ongoing relationship with a company.

It is the memory of the experience, not the actual experience, moreover, that affects our future behavior. While this may seem like parsing words, the distinction is critical: if a customer is annoyed that it took too long for the customer service rep to answer the phone, the web page to load, for dinner to be served s or for cable service to be restored following a storm, that is what they will remember – even if the call was answered on the third ring, the page loaded in four seconds, dinner came in ten minutes and service was back up in under an hour. Since our memory is selective, inexact, subjective and vulnerable to bias, the memory of the experience will not be identical to the actual experience. It is totally in the eyes of the beholder, and the personal memory trumps the actual experience.

What Makes an Experience Memorable?

The key to creating a memorable experience is an emotional trigger. An emotional connection – perhaps stemming from a mental association to some prior memory on the part of the customer (the music in the store reminded me of that first concert/love/camping trip/whatever) , an arousal of the senses (after the repair, the car had that “new car smell” again) or the context of or the story behind the experience (it made me think about dinner at grandmas or feel like a kid again) – is central to turning the mundane into the memorable. “I’ve learned that people forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou).

Emotions create connections or “hooks” that people can and will recall. Emotions give meaning to experiences and make them more relevant to our lives. The more meaning we attach to an experience, the more importance we give it, the more likely it is that we will feel emotionally connected in some way and the more likely that we will remember it. Experiences that don’t stir emotions simply have less meaning for us, making them more likely to be forgotten. The bland is inherently forgettable, like tasteless food and white noise.

The CX/Relationship Link

Every company wants strong customer relationships, as solid customer bonds are good for business. The relationship is more than the simple sum of experiences. At the same time, every experience is both an opportunity to strengthen and a risk of weakening those bonds. And many experiences – those that don’t have any emotional resonance – have no real impact on those bonds.

Just how important is the emotional imprinting of the customer experience? The emotional impact of the experience actually is more important than the perceived quality of or satisfaction with the experience. In various projects we looked at how well both our emotion index and company performance explained the strength of the overall relationship. And the emotional trumps the practical or rational rating every time.

In the illustration below, for example, the quality of car repairs at the dealership has a significant impact (R2=.59) on the customer’s loyalty to the vehicle brand. The emotion score, however, has far more impact on the customer relationship, with an R2 of .84. Emotions about the repair experience, in other words, are some 50% more powerful than the quality of the repair in explaining the impact of car repairs on loyalty or attachment to the brand.

We see this time and again: the emotional impact of customer experiences drives the strength of the customer relationship more than the “performance” of the company on delivering the experience.


These insights have significant consequences for how companies should measure and track, prioritize, design and manage the customer experience.

From a tracking perspective, when and what should companies measure? Capturing feedback as close in time to the actual experience is critical for efforts at near real-time experience management and the remediation of problems. “Hot Alerts” aren’t much use when the issue no longer is hot for the customer. Close-in measures, of course, also furnish more granular detail, which can be critical. But if it is the memory of the experience that lives on in the customer’s mind and influences the overall relationship, perhaps less immediate measures are more important for managing ongoing relationships? Details people might remember in-the-moment might be important for process improvements, but less meaningful for managing customer relationships.

Measuring the emotional dimension of the experience is critical, regardless of whether feedback is captured immediately or after a delay. This is akin to measuring the stickiness of the glue in customer experiences. If the customer says you did great and yawns, don’t expect to get much traction.

Prioritizing investments in the customer experience necessitates determining the relative impact of the various types of experiences customers have, as well as the company’s performance and the emotional impact with those experiences. Not every part of the journey is of equal importance, so companies must decide where to invest based on what matters most to customer, how the firm is performing and whether it is having an emotional impact on customers.

When it comes to actually designing the customer experience companies need to think beyond simple function and process and consider the emotional element: is this touch likely to leave an emotional imprint on the customer? Oh, and is it more likely to be a positive or a negative imprint?

This brings us to the final landmine: managing experiences to “do no harm.” The reality is that people perceive and react more quickly to, remember longer, and are more likely to share with others negative information than positive information. In other words, negative experiences and emotional disappointments tend to be more enduring than positive, emotionally pleasing experiences.

So while bland experiences may leave no imprint, that is far better than experiences that generate a negative emotional charge. For this reason, minimizing and repairing experiences that annoy/frustrate/anger/confuse customers is a top priority. In fact, defending against performance failures promises a greater positive payoff than improvements in areas of strength.

So, did anything strike a raw nerve or emotional chord . . . ?

Interested in more? Please register for a related webinar:

Howard Lax, Ph.D.

Supporting better informed decision making with technology, research and strategy. With a focus on CX/VoC/NPS, Employee Engagement and emotion analytics, Howard's domain is the application of marketing information and SaaS platforms to solve business problems and activating CX programs to drive business objectives.


  1. So first, stop doing satisfaction studies right after the transacation. Why do people promote this as being related to loyalty, knowing fully well the memory of the experience is more important

  2. As stated after reading your article on LinkedIn last week, I had an emotional response………great stuff!!! We’ve been applying Kahneman’s Peak End Rule precepts for some time, so also believe that customer emotionally-driven irrationality and intuition are deeply embedded in value perception, memory of the experience, and downstream decision-making.

  3. There are reasons to survey customers immediately after the transaction: namely, for granular insights regarding process improvement and, of course, recovery efforts for a performance failure.

    As for why people, as you put it Gautam, “promote this as being related to loyalty,” I think that gets to the failure of most people — including the “pros” — to differentiate between customer experience and customer loyalty. After all, many people still conduct tNPS and rNPS studies and then wonder why the transactional results and relationship findings don’t align. NPS was never envisioned as a transactional or experiential measure, but it was quick and easy to slap a “t” in front of the metric and use it.

    I’m glad i elicited an emotional response, Michael. When us left-brained rationalists react emotionally, I know we’re on the right track.

  4. Reading this makes me feel that 2016 is truly the year of emotions when it comes to CXM. Just recently while reviewing the CXPA-organized CX Day, I’ve pointed to Temkin Group’s research into how customers’ feelings about a transaction and their enduring emotions can become the basis for segmentation. Interestingly enough, Bruce Temkin links emotions to loyalty first of all. Here’s the link:

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Darya.

    We have a long way to go before we have a solid grasp on the emotional dimension of human decision making, in general, and in CX and loyalty, in particular.

    As to emotional segmentation, I’ll withhold judgment, but i have my reservations. Classifying people after-the-fact is easy, but scarcely lives up to the promise of segmentation. If you can’t place non-survey respondents into the segments or score a customer file with segments, then I don’t think you have the basis for a meaningful segmentation — and I wonder how this will be accomplished with an emotional classification.

    This sounds like the challenges VALs faced a million years ago: at the end of the day, it was interesting, great coffee table and discussion fodder, but not especialy actionable. So we created cross-reference files to PRIZM and demos, which dilutes the original concepts and essentially gives you a segmentation based on PRIZM or demos.

    But if you have a solution to this, I’d love to hear it.

  6. Howard, I agree with you that emotions play a huge role in business to sustain existing customer and to attract new customers. To manage customer experience many companies are using CRM software which helps in customer relationship management. Many times products or services have not enough quality compare to their competitors but still, their sales are high only because of providing good customer experience which helps to maintain the trust of customers on their business.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here